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Serse (Italian pronunciation:  [ˈsɛrse] ; English title: Xerxes; HWV 40) is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. It was first performed in London on 15 April 1738. The Italian libretto was adapted by an unknown hand from that by Silvio Stampiglia for an earlier opera of the same name by Giovanni Bononcini in 1694. Stampiglia's libretto was itself based on one by Nicolò Minato that was set by Francesco Cavalli in 1654. The opera is set in Persia (modern-day Iran) about 470 BC and is very loosely based upon Xerxes I of Persia. Serse, originally sung by a soprano castrato, is now usually performed by a mezzo-soprano or counter-tenor.

<i>Opera seria</i> opera genre

Opera seria is an Italian musical term which refers to the noble and "serious" style of Italian opera that predominated in Europe from the 1710s to about 1770. The term itself was rarely used at the time and only attained common usage once opera seria was becoming unfashionable and beginning to be viewed as a historical genre. The popular rival to opera seria was opera buffa, the 'comic' opera that took its cue from the improvisatory commedia dell'arte.

George Frideric Handel 18th-century German, later British, Baroque composer

George FridericHandel was a German, later British, Baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, and organ concertos. Handel received important training in Halle-upon-Saale and worked as a composer in Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712; he became a naturalised British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced both by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and by the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of both England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.


The opening aria, "Ombra mai fu", sung by Xerxes to a plane tree ( Platanus orientalis ), is set to one of Handel's best-known melodies, and is often known as Handel's "Largo" (despite being marked "larghetto" in the score).

"Ombra mai fu" is the opening aria from the 1738 opera Serse by George Frideric Handel.

<i>Platanus orientalis</i> species of plant

Platanus orientalis, the Old World sycamore, or Oriental plane, is a large, deciduous tree of the Platanaceae family, growing to 30 m (98 ft) or more, and known for its longevity and spreading crown.

Composition history

Georg Friedrich Handel - Serse - title page of the libretto - London 1738 Georg Friedrich Handel - Serse - title page of the libretto - London 1738.png
Georg Friedrich Händel - Serse - title page of the libretto - London 1738

In late 1737 the King's Theatre, London, commissioned Handel to write two new operas. The first, Faramondo , was premiered on 3 January 1738. By this time, Handel had already begun work on Serse. The first act was composed between 26 December 1737 and 9 January 1738, the second was ready by 25 January, the third by 6 February, and Handel put the finishing touches to the score on 14 February. Serse was first performed at the King's Theatre, Haymarket on 15 April 1738. [1]

<i>Faramondo</i> opera by Georg Friedrich Händel

Faramondo, HWV 39, is an opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel to an Italian libretto adapted from Apostolo Zeno's Faramondo. The story is loosely based upon the legend of Pharamond, a mythological King of the Franks, circa 420 AD, and the early history of France. The opera had its first performance at the King's Theatre, London, on 3 January 1738.

The first production was a complete failure. [2] The audience may have been confused by the innovative nature of the work. Unlike his other operas for London, Handel included comic ( buffo ) elements in Serse. Although this had been typical for 17th-century Venetian works such as Cavalli's original setting of the libretto, by the 1730s an opera seria was expected to be wholly serious, with no mixing of the genres of tragedy and comedy or high and low class characters. The musicologist Charles Burney later took Serse to task for violating decorum in this way, writing: "I have not been able to discover the author of the words of this drama: but it is one of the worst Handel ever set to Music: for besides feeble writing, there is a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery in it, which Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio had banished from serious opera." [3] Another unusual aspect of Serse is the number of short, one-part arias, when a typical opera seria of Handel's time was almost wholly made up of long, three-part da capo arias. This feature particularly struck the Earl of Shaftesbury, who attended the premiere and admired the opera. He noted "the airs too, for brevity's sake, as the opera would otherwise be too long [,] fall without any recitativ' intervening from one into another[,] that tis difficult to understand till it comes by frequent hearing to be well known. My own judgment is that it is a capital opera notwithstanding tis called a ballad one." [3] It is likely that Handel had been influenced, both as regards the comedy and the absence of da capo arias, by the success in London of ballad operas such as The Beggar's Opera and John Frederick Lampe's The Dragon of Wantley, the latter of which was visited by Handel. [4]

Opera buffa is a genre of opera. It was first used as an informal description of Italian comic operas variously classified by their authors as commedia in musica, commedia per musica, dramma bernesco, dramma comico, divertimento giocoso.

Charles Burney 18th/19th-century English music historian

Charles Burney FRS was an English music historian, composer and musician. He was the father of the writers Frances Burney and Sarah Burney, the explorer James Burney, and Charles Burney, classicist and book donor to the British Museum.

Apostolo Zeno Venetian poet

Apostolo Zeno was a Venetian poet, librettist, journalist, and man of letters.

Performance history

London King's Theatre Haymarket, where Serse was first performed London Kings Theatre Haymarket.jpg
London King's Theatre Haymarket, where Serse was first performed

Serse disappeared from the stage for almost two hundred years. It enjoyed its first modern revival in Göttingen on 5 July 1924 in a version by Oscar Hagen. By 1926 this version had been staged at least 90 times in 15 German cities. Serse's success has continued. [5] According to Winton Dean, Serse is Handel's most popular opera with modern audiences after Giulio Cesare . [6] The very features which 18th-century listeners found so disconcerting - the shortness of the arias and the admixture of comedy - may account for its appeal to the 20th and the 21st centuries. [7]

Göttingen Place in Lower Saxony, Germany

Göttingen is a university city in Lower Saxony, Germany, the capital of the eponymous district. It is run through by River Leine. At the start of 2017, the population was 134,212.

Winton Basil Dean was an English musicologist of the 20th century, most famous for his research concerning the life and works—in particular the operas and oratorios—of George Frideric Handel, as detailed in his book Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (1959).

<i>Giulio Cesare</i> opera in three acts by Georg Friedrich Händel

Giulio Cesare in Egitto, commonly known as Giulio Cesare, is a dramma per musica in three acts composed for the Royal Academy of Music by George Frideric Handel in 1724. The libretto was written by Nicola Francesco Haym who used an earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani, which had been set to music by Antonio Sartorio (1676). The opera was a success at its first performances, was frequently revived by Handel in his subsequent opera seasons and is now one of the most often performed Baroque operas.

Serse was produced for the stage at the La Scala Theater in Milan, Italy in January 1962. The production was conducted by Piero Bellugi, and an all-star cast featuring Mirella Freni, Rolando Panerai, Fiorenza Cossotto, Irene Companez, Leonardo Monreale, Franco Calabrese, and Luigi Alva in the title role. Because Handel operas were still in a relatively early stage of their return to the stage, musicians had not yet thought to ornament the da capo sections (repetition of the A section) of the arias and thus, they were not ornamented. There is a live recording from January 19, 1962 available on the Opera D'oro label.[ citation needed ]

Piero Bellugi Italian conductor

Piero Bellugi was an Italian conductor from Florence.

Mirella Freni singer

Mirella Freni is an Italian soprano whose repertoire includes Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Freni was married for many years to the Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, with whom she performed and recorded.

Rolando Panerai Italian opera singer

Rolando Panerai is an Italian baritone, particularly associated with the Italian repertory. He was born in Campi Bisenzio, near Florence, Italy and studied with Frazzi in Florence and Armani and Giulia Tess in Milan. Panerai made his stage debut in 1947 in Naples at the Teatro di San Carlo as the pharaon in Rossini's Mosè in Egitto. Other debuts, both in 1951, were as Simon Boccanegra in Simon Boccanegra in Bergamo and as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly at La Scala in Milan. He sang in many rarely performed Verdi operas on radio broadcast for RAI in 1951, such as Giovanna d'Arco, La battaglia di Legnano, and Aroldo. Later roles included most of the great Verdi baritone roles, particularly the title character in Rigoletto, The Count of Luna in Il trovatore, Giorgio Germont in La traviata, Marquis of Posa in Don Carlos, Amonasro in Aida.

A complete recording was made in 1979. A particularly highly acclaimed production, sung in English, was staged by the English National Opera in 1985, to mark the 300th anniversary of the composer's birth. Conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, it was directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also translated the libretto, and starred Ann Murray in the title role, with Valerie Masterson as Romilda, Christopher Robson as Arsamene, and Lesley Garrett as Atalanta. [8] The production returned for a sixth revival to the London Coliseum in September 2014, starring Alice Coote as Xerxes. [9]


Caffarelli, who created the role of Serse Caffarelli.jpg
Caffarelli, who created the role of Serse
RoleVoice typePremiere Cast, 15 April 1738 [10]
Serse (Xerxes), King of Persia soprano castrato Gaetano Majorano ("Caffarelli")
Arsamene, brother of Serse, in love with Romilda contralto Maria Antonia Marchesini ("La Lucchesina")
Amastre, princess of a neighbouring kingdom, betrothed to Serse but jilted by himcontralto Antonia Merighi
Romilda, daughter of Ariodate, in love with Arsamenesoprano Elisabeth Duparc ("La Francesina")
Atalanta, Romilda's sister, also in love with ArsamenesopranoMargherita Chimenti ("La Droghierina")
Ariodate, a prince under Serse's command,father of Romilda and Atalanta bass Antonio Montagnana
Elviro, Arsamene's servantbassAntonio Lottini


Place:Abydos, Persia
Time: about 470 BC

Act 1

Elisabeth Duparc, who created the role of Romilda Elisabeth Duparc, detta La Francesina.jpg
Élisabeth Duparc, who created the role of Romilda

A garden with a large plane tree and a summerhouse on the side

The King of Persia, Serse, gives effusive, loving thanks to the plane tree for furnishing him with shade.(Arioso:Ombra mai fu). Arsamene with his buffoon-like servant Elviro enters, looking for Arsamene's sweetheart Romilda. They stop as they hear her singing from the summerhouse. Romilda is making gentle fun of Serse with her song. He is in love with a tree, but the tree does not return his affection. Serse does not know that his brother is in love with the singer, and entranced by her music, Serse announces that he wants her to be his. Arsamene is horrified when Serse orders him to tell Romilda of his love. Arsamene warns Romilda of what Serse wants - this encourages Atalanta, Romilda's sister, who is secretly in love with Arsamene also and hopes that Romilda will be Serse's and then she can have Arsamene.

Serse tells Romilda that he wants her for his queen and when Arsamene remonstrates Serse banishes him. Romilda is determined to remain faithful to the man she loves, Arsamene.

Outside the palace

Princess Amastre now arrives, disguised as a man. She was engaged to Serse but he jilted her and she is furiously determined to be revenged.

Ariodate, general to Serse and father of Romilda and Atalanta, enters with news of a great military victory he has won. Serse is grateful to him and promises that as a reward his daughter Romilda will marry a man equal in rank to the King himself.

Arsamene gives Elviro a letter for Romilda, telling her how distressed he is at their forced separation and pledging to try to visit her in secret. Romilda's sister Atalanta, hoping to secure Arsamene for herself, tells Romilda that Arsamene is in love with another girl, but Romilda does not believe it.

Act 2

Xerxes crossing the Hellespont Xerxes crossing the Hellespont.jpg
Xerxes crossing the Hellespont

A square in the city

Elviro has disguised himself as a flower-seller in order to deliver his master Arsamene's letter to Romilda, and is also putting on a rural accent. He does not approve of the King's desire to marry a mere subject such as Romilda and makes this clear. Princess Amastre, in her disguise as a man, hears Elviro expressing this and she is aghast at the King's plan to marry another when he promised to be hers (Aria:Or che siete speranze tradite).

Amastre leaves in despair and rage and Atalanta enters. Elviro tells her he has a letter for her sister and Atalanta takes it, promising to give it to Romilda. Instead she mischievously shows the letter to the King, telling him that Arsamene sent it to her and no longer loves Romilda. Serse takes the letter and shows it to Romilda, telling her Arsamene is now in love with Atalanta, not her. Romilda is shaken (Aria:E’ Gelosia).

Princess Amastre has decided to kill herself but Elviro arrives in time to stop her. She resolves to confront the King with his ill-treatment of her. Elviro tells Amastre that Romilda now loves Serse: Amastre is devastated (Aria:Anima infida).

By the newly-constructed bridge spanning the Hellespont and thus uniting Asia and Europe

Sailors hail the completion of the bridge, constructed under Serse's orders, and Serse orders his general Ariodate to cross the bridge with his army and invade Europe.

Serse encounters his heart-broken brother Arsamene and tells him to cheer up, he can marry the woman he now loves, Atalanta, no problem. Arsamene is confused and insists he loves Romilda, not Atalanta. Hearing this, the King advises Atalanta to forget about Arsamene, but she says that is impossible.

Elviro watches as a violent storm threatens to destroy the new bridge. He calms his nerves with drink.

Outside the city in a garden

Serse and Arsamene are both suffering from jealousy and the tribulations of the love lorn. Serse again implores Romilda to marry him but she remains firm in her refusal. The violently furious Amastre appears and draws a sword on the King but Romilda intervenes. Amastre says Romilda should not be forced to marry a man she does not love, and Romilda praises those who are true to their hearts (Aria:Chi cede al furore).

Act 3

Antonia Merighi, who created the role of Amastre, in a caricature by Antonio Maria Zanetti Antonia Merighi Zanetti.jpg
Antonia Merighi, who created the role of Amastre, in a caricature by Antonio Maria Zanetti

A gallery

Romilda and Arsamene are having a lovers' spat about that letter, but calm down when Atalanta appears and admits her deception. She has decided she will have to find another boyfriend somewhere else.

Serse again implores Romilda to marry him and she tells him to seek her father's permission, if he consents, she will. Arsamenes bitterly reproaches her for this(Aria:Amor, tiranno Amor).

Serse once more asks Ariodate if he is happy for his daughter Romilda to marry someone equal in rank to the King. Ariodate thinks Serse means Arsamene and happily gives his consent. Serse tells Romilda that her father has agreed to their marriage but Romilda, trying to put him off, tells him that Arsamene loves her and in fact he has kissed her. Serse, furious, orders his brother to be put to death.

Amastre asks Romilda to take a letter to the King, telling her that this will help her. Amastre bewails her plight, having been abandoned by Serse, who promised to be hers (Aria:Cagion son io).

Arsamene blames Romilda for the fact that he has been sentenced to death, and the lovers again quarrel (Duet:Troppo oltraggi la mia fede).

The temple of the sun

Arsamene and Romilda have been summoned to the temple and they come in, still quarreling, but they are amazed and overjoyed when Ariodate tells them that Serse has agreed to their wedding and he marries them then and there.

Serse enters,ready to marry Romilda, and is enraged when he discovers that it is too late, Ariodate has married his daughter to Arsamene. Serse bitterly denounces Ariodate for that and is even more enraged when a letter arrives, apparently from Romilda, accusing him of faithlessness. When he discovers that the letter is actually from his previous fiance Amastre, whom he jilted, his fury only increases (Aria:Crude Furie degl' orridi abissi).

Serse takes his sword and orders Arsamene to kill Romilda with it; but Amastre interrupts this and asks Serse if he truly wants treachery and infidelity to be punished. Serse says he does whereupon Amastre reveals her true identity as Serse's betrothed. Serse, abashed, admits his fault - he will marry Amastre as he promised, he wishes his brother Arsamene and Romilda happiness in their marriage, and all celebrate the fortunate outcome of events (Chorus:Ritorna a noi la calma). [11] [12]

Historical motives

Katarina Karneus as Xerxes, Stockholm, Royal Swedish Opera, 2009 Katarina Karneus as Xerxes 2009.jpg
Katarina Karnéus as Xerxes, Stockholm, Royal Swedish Opera, 2009

The libretto includes some motives that are based upon events that actually happened. Serse, Amastre and Arsamene are all based on historical persons. The story of Xerxes wanting to marry the love of his brother Arsamenes is based upon a real story. In reality though, it was a wife of another brother Xerxes fell in love with but failed to marry himself. [13] The collapsing of a bridge over the Hellespont and Xerxes returning from a successful campaign in Greece are real events during the reign of Xerxes, though they are anachronistic here.



Audio recordings

Label [14]
1965 Maureen Forrester,
Lucia Popp,
Maureen Lehane,
Mildred Miller,
Marilyn Tyler,
Owen Brannigan,
Thomas Hemsley
Brian Priestman
Vienna Radio Orchestra
CD:Deutsche Grammophon
Cat:0289 477 8339 8
1979 Carolyn Watkinson,
Barbara Hendricks,
Paul Esswood,
Ortrun Wenkel,
Anne-Marie Rodde,
Ulrich Studer,
Ulrik Cold
Jean-Claude Malgoire
La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy
1997 Ann Murray,
Yvonne Kenny,
Christopher Robson,
Patricia Bardon,
Julie Kaufmann,
Jan Zinkler,
Umberto Chiummo
Ivor Bolton
Bayerische Staatsoper
Cat: B108010
2003 Anne Sofie von Otter,
Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz,
Lawrence Zazzo,
Silvia Tro Santafe,
Sandrine Piau,
Antonio Abete,
Giovanni Furlanetto
William Christie
Les Arts Florissants
CD:Erato Records
2013Anna Stéphany,
Rosemary Joshua,
David Daniels,
Hilary Summers,
Joélle Harvey,
Andreas Wolf,
Brindley Sherratt
Christian Curnyn
Early Opera Group
CD:Chandos Records
2018 Franco Fagioli,
Inga Kalna,
Vivica Genaux,
Delphine Galou,
Francesca Aspromonte,
Biagio Pizzuti,
Andrea Mastroni
Maxim Emelyanychev
Il Pomo d'Oro
CD:Deutsche Grammophon

Video recording

Stage directorLabel
2018Gaëlle Arquez,
Elizabeth Sutphen,
Lawrence Zazzo,
Tanja Ariane Baumgartner,
Louise Alder,
Thomas Faulkner,
Brandon Cedel
Constantinos Carydis
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester
Tilmann KöhlerBlu-ray:C Major

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  1. Best p.14
  2. Dean in Opera and the Enlightenment, p.135
  3. 1 2 Best p.15
  4. Keates (2014), p. 10.
  5. Opera and the Enlightenment p.166. Dean calls Hagen's vocal score of Serse "a grinning parody".
  6. Opera and the Enlightenment p.135
  7. Best p.18
  8. Evan Dickerson, "Seen and Heard Opera Review" on Seen and Heard International website, retrieved 2 October 2014
  9. William Hartston, "Handel's Xerxes by the English National Opera: Astonishing comedy, glorious fun", Daily Express (London), 17 September 2014. Accessed 2 October 2014.
  10. "Serse". Handel & Hendrix in London . Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  11. Hicks, Anthony. "Serse ('Xerxes')". In Deane L. Root. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online . Oxford University Press.(subscription required)
  12. "Serse". Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  13. Herodotus, Histories: IX, 108–110
  14. "Classical recordings - Search: serse handel (page 1 of 44) | Presto Classical".